Baha'i Fundamentalism

A fundamentalist Baha'i seems, at first glance, to be almost a contradiction in terms, given that religion's reputation for tolerance and liberal social teachings. However, forms of fundamentalism can be found in almost all of the world's religions and share several features in common, including: resistance to the secularization of society, scriptural literalism, rejection of scientific and scholarly findings which contradict the fundamentalist worldview, apocalypticism and millennialism, a belief that the faithful are under siege by the forces of evil, authoritarian and/or charismatic leadership, and the insistence that fundamentalism is the only true form of the religion.

So, fundamentalism also exists within the Baha'i Faith, including some members of its leadership, and Baha'i fundamentalism shares many attitudes with that found in other religions. The Baha'i Faith presents its liberal face to the public, emphasizing such teachings as the unity of religion and racial harmony, because these teachings are more attractive to potential converts. However, fundamentalists within the Faith emphasize the more authoritarian and legalistic aspects of Baha'i practice and community structure.

The central teaching at stake, the Baha'i equivalent to Biblical inerrancy, is the doctrine of the Covenant. As the term is usually used, it refers to the written transfer of authority to successive leaders of the Baha'i Faith, from its founder, Baha'u'llah, to his son 'Abdu'l-Baha, to his grandson Shoghi Effendi, to today's Universal House of Justice. Because the administrative structure of the Baha'i Faith was outlined in scripture by both Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha, it is considered to be divine in origin. Fundamentalists often view the institutions themselves with a deep reverence and consider that they are to be obeyed without question. Moderates and liberals tend to treat them more as a citizen would treat any elected body, and as less central to their religious belief and practice. Fundamentalists believe that Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian, and the Universal House of Justice(UHJ) were and are inerrant in all the decisions that they have made. Liberals tend to point out the scriptural limitations on both of these institutions.

When discussing issues concerning Baha'i community life, or the judicial practices of Baha'i institutions, fundamentalists tend to defend the status quo, since they believe the UHJ especially to be infallible, and the administrative order as a whole to be divinely guided. There seems to be a particular reluctance to change any practice that dates from the time of Shoghi Effendi, who died in 1957 without a successor. Liberals tend to be more reform-minded and flexible in their thinking.

One of the common features of fundamentalisms world-wide is that they protest against the declining role of religion in secular societies. Baha'i fundamentalism shows an absolute contempt of traditional democratic values such as the right to free speech, the necessity of a free press as a check on institutional power, or the right for a person accused of wrongdoing to have knowledge of the evidence against them and face their accusers. Fundamentalists also expect that the world will be brought together under a theocracy ruled by Baha'i institutions. As I pointed out in my article "Everybody Wants to Rule the World", the belief in a future theocracy is not solidly grounded in scripture, and actually runs counter to statements Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha made supporting the separation of church and state.

Christian fundamentalists often see themselves as being besieged by the forces of evil, such as "secular humanism", or New Age beliefs that are seen as infiltrating both the beliefs of unwary Christians and society at large. The Baha'i equivalent is the fear of both "covenant breakers" or schismatic heretics, and the more recent fear of "internal opposition", meaning the expression of more liberal ideas by Baha'is on the Internet. However, the Baha'i Faith goes much farther than fundamentalist Christians in that Baha'is can be investigated by appointed officials given the specific job of "Protection". Ordinary believers, in fact, will sometimes "turn in" their fellows that they feel are suspect either in their behavior or belief, and this can sometimes lead to an investigation and/or sanction.

Christian fundamentalism in this country was, in its origins, a reaction to Biblical criticism and modern scholarship. Baha'i fundamentalism is also deeply mistrustful of secular academics. In its April 7, 1999 letter, the Universal House of Justice, the religion's supreme ruling body, dismissed Western academic thought as "materialist", and described it as "designed to ignore the truths that make religion what it is." Unofficial statements by Baha'i fundamentalists can be even more scathing, saying that it is not acceptable for a scholar to "write as if he were not a Baha'i" and even calling the sort of research and writing common in Western universities "bad scholarship" because it does not attribute certain events to divine intervention.

Another feature Baha'i fundamentalism shares with its Christian counterpart is that it insists on the scientific and historical accuracy of scripture. For example, some Baha'is reject the theory of evolution, based upon some statements made about it by 'Abdu'l-Baha. Such an approach seems to undermine the very principle of harmony between science and religion that 'Abdu'l-Baha' himself promoted.

Baha'i fundamentalism can even discard the tolerance that is the foundation of Baha'u'llah's teachings. As in Christian fundamentalism, there is a rigid demarcation between correct and incorrect belief, cutting itself off both from other Baha'i approaches and other world religions. I personally heard a member of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly say that if a person does not accept the Baha'i revelation, they they would not enter paradise. I found this especially shocking since the teaching that all the world's religions have a common foundation was very important to me. This "triumphalist" view that while previous religions were true in their day, they now have been rendered obsolete by the advent of Baha'u'llah is a fairly common fundamentalist viewpoint.

Author's Note: This article first appeared in Themestream January 2, 2001. It was published on IAMValley on April 14, 2001, where it was chosen "Editor's Pick".

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